We all have to let go eventually.
Sometimes it’s letting go of a friendship. A husband. A career. A child. A parent.
The toxic friend who suffocates you and puts you down. The husband who can’t commit. The career that stresses you out. The child who needs to learn from his own mistakes. The parent who dies.
Or letting go of the parts of your book you’re writing that work–until they don’t work anymore.
Some people call it “killing your darlings” like William Faulkner noted. He said, “in writing, you must kill all your darlings.” He also said, “a writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”
Your imagination lets your words fly free.
Your experience enables you to harness them.
Your observation arms you with the weapon to indeed kill those darlings.
I like to call it “letting go”.
At one writer’s retreat lakeside in Northern New York (led by editor, author, and friend Kathryn Craft) I read from my novel-in-progress. A strong theme of the novel is about finding peace in life through balance, emotional vs. physical. My fellow retreaters pointed out that several of my characters had disabilities.
A one-legged girl. A bald-headed lady. A young man with a club foot. A young woman with lopsided breasts. I was told that unless this was a novel about circus freaks, it was too much.
I had to laugh. They were right. I needed to decide what would stay and what to let go that no longer served the purpose of the story. I had to find the one select physical character issue and let that shine throughout the story arc. And I realized that a character’s imbalance need not be physical, it could be on the inside–a flawed internal imbalance that he has to face.
I was comforted also by the fact my fellow retreaters told me that letting go of what doesn’t serve your story is the sign of maturity in a writer.
And this is what writing the draft of a novel is about. Writing it all in, and then letting go. What we start out with is not what we end up with, and it can’t stay the same to work. Like life. We must let go of what no longer serves us.
And in the creating of that which we may let go, we develop the skills needed as a writer–and we absorb these skills along our journey, often without knowing it. We’re building a bridge that may get disassembled and moved to another location, but we would never get to that final location without the first bridge.
It has to be undone–to be done. To be let go–in order to gain.
In my thriller for adults, A Human Element, my publisher sent back edits on the villain,X-10. He was too evil. He was too un-redeemable. He did too many terrible deeds. It was overkill and took away from the complexity of his character and derailed the emotional scene at the end. I agreed and–I let them all go but one. And it worked. Many readers tell me that that X-10 is their favorite character and they feel sympathetic toward him, even with how terrifying he is.
In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit she notes that “what all successful artists have in common is that they have mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and built their creativity on the solid foundation of those skills.”
Tharp also writes that “skill is how you close the gap between what you see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce.” And that is what letting go in writing is–closing the gap between a new idea and a refined one.
I remember the first time I let go of my son’s hand years ago and let him run out in the wide open spaces. He jogged crookedly across a vast field. His toddler legs carried him wildly as he headed into the great unknown.
I knew it was time to let him go for a bit. I could still see him and that would have to be enough. But anxiety gripped my heart until his small hand was back in mine, warm and gripping.
At age ten, my son wanted to bike to school by himself.
His friends were doing it.
It was only half a mile. Down the path. Over the bridge and through the woods. Across the road. I could see his route in my mind. We’d taken it so many times.
And I signed the school form giving him permission and I waved goodbye as he left for school. A letting go that hurt. But I discovered it wouldn’t always hurt. My son didn’t need saving anymore. I let him go to be his own hero. I hope I can, too, in the wide open spaces of my writing.
What we start out with is not what we end up with, and it can’t stay the same if we want to move on. In writing. In life.
I let go of my mother not long ago. I held her hand. I said my goodbyes. I cherished the time. She drifted away. And then I let go.
The blessing in letting go is to let go with no regret. It makes the experience all worthwhile.
An experience that shapes you.
Makes you a better person.
Makes you a better writer.